Dafoe’s Role as Green Goblin Isn’t the Stretch It Might Seem
A Willem Dafoe action figure ... what will they think of next?
Of all the hundreds of actors working in Hollywood, this intense and cerebral performance artist would have to be among those least likely to be immortalized in “super-poseable, highly articulated” plastic.
Stroll through any Wal-Mart or Toys R Us, and you’ll find shelves full of action figures that resemble the Rock, Arnold Schwarzenegger Sylvester Stallone, Eminem, even the Simpsons. Last year, one adventurous toy maker produced a series of promotional figurines inspired by the jewel thieves in “Reservoir Dogs” (Mr. Blonde came with a straight razor).
Dafoe, who fully embodies the demonic Green Goblin in “Spider-Man,” couldn’t hide a toothy grin after being coaxed into acknowledging the existence of his very own action figure. The wiry Wisconsin native squirms nervously in his rattan chair and tries not to look too embarrassed by this unexpected concession to commercialism.
“Yeah, next thing, people will start recognizing me in shopping malls,” quipped Dafoe, sipping on a Gan Bei Longevity Tonic in the garden of the Elixir tearoom on Melrose. “I’ve never really been involved in such a big production ... one that’s had as much integration of special effects with traditional scenes. ‘Flight of the Intruder’ was an action movie ... and ‘Last Temptation [of Christ]’ even had some.
“On stage, I’m always doing physical stuff. So, I guess, that was one of the attractions of this role.”
These days, many less-than-buff stars rely on computer-generated imagery, or CGI, technicians, makeup artists and strength coaches to mask their physical limitations. Not Dafoe.
“I didn’t have a trainer,” brags Dafoe, whose taut, wiry body seems to be devoid of even an ounce of fat. “I knew it wouldn’t all be CGI.... I’d have to perform quite a bit of the actual fighting and glider work myself. Unfortunately, though, a lot of the blue-screen and wire work didn’t end up on the screen.”
Perhaps it’s farfetched to think that “Spider-Man” merchandise will be sold this summer in the lobby of the Wooster Group’s Performing Garage, back in New York. In a world where studio press kits can be found on EBay, however, anything is possible.
Truth is, Dafoe fits right into the pantheon of action stars.
In Sam Raimi’s reconstruction of the “Spider-Man” legend, Peter Parker and Norman Osborn experience parallel metamorphoses. This deviates from the blueprint drawn 40 years ago by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, but it does no disservice to their creative vision.
Some time compression was necessary, because it wasn’t until issue No. 14 of “Amazing Spider-Man” that the bomb-throwing villain was introduced to readers.
“Growing up, I was aware of the Marvel superheroes, but I wasn’t much of comic-book reader,” concedes Dafoe. . “It wasn’t as if I was against reading them, it’s just that I wasn’t doing it. My introduction to comic books was through Zap Comix and Zippy the Pinhead.
“Those are the images I’d see when I visited my older brothers and sisters at the University of Wisconsin.”
Instead of following his seven siblings to Madison, Dafoe left his Midwest hometown of Appleton, Wis., and took off for the closest big city, Milwaukee.
He stayed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee long enough for a couple cups of coffee but dropped out to join the acclaimed experimental acting company Theater X. Before long, he was on his way to the Big Apple and the fledgling multimedia performance troupe the Wooster Group.
Dafoe appeared in eight films before winning praise as the Christ-like Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” for which he received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. Two years later, in 1988, he was elevated to full-blown son-of-God status, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
(In his dramatic transformation scene in “Spider-Man,” there’s a moment when Dafoe looks as if he’s enduring another crucifixion. He denies, however, it’s “a nod” to any previous roles.)
While making his bones in Hollywood, playing a steady succession of saints and sinners, priests and pushers, Dafoe also maintained his commitment to the Wooster Group. Last year, he received a second supporting actor Oscar nomination for his wonderfully creepy interpretation of Max Schreck in “Shadow of the Vampire.”
Even before “Spider-Man” was released, the 46-year-old father of one college-age son (with Wooster Group founder Elizabeth LeCompte) has grown weary of answering questions about the eye-popping scene in which Norman Osborn is transformed into Green Goblin. His impressively cut torso is on full display when Osborn bursts out of his shirt. “Everybody wants to know what I did to get in shape for the movie, but I didn’t do anything special,” said Dafoe, insisting that, while he occasionally will accept a piece of fish, he draws the line at red meat or cheese. “I try to keep quiet about my personal preferences. I don’t want to become a cheerleader for yoga, but I’m probably stronger now than I ever was before.”
Because he was in such good shape, Dafoe volunteered to perform the majority of the stunts himself.
“He’s extremely flexible and an extremely quick learner,” confirms stunt coordinator Jeff Habberstad. “At one point during the scene in which Norman Osborn becomes the Green Goblin, Willem is required to jump onto the top edge of the glass chamber. That morning, though, Sam [Raimi] and Willem got to talking and decided, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Norman could leap 25 feet in the air, from the edge of the glass, and land on the ground right in front of the camera?’
“We ended up running over to another stage, building a special harness--remember, he wouldn’t have a shirt on--then tested it and shot the scene after lunch.”
When Spider-Man and Green Goblin do battle on the screen, many in the audience will wonder whether they’re watching actors or stunt doubles under those body suits. The costumes are consistent with the mythos, however.
As conceived by Lee and Ditko, Spider-Man not only was one of the first superheroes to rise up from humble, middle-class roots, but he also was the first to wear a head-to-toe costume. Any pullback from that decision probably would leave fans howling.
The challenge became designing costumes in which the personalities of the actors and characters would allow full freedom of movement and facial expression.
“When Willem came into the first fitting, he did the splits and said, ‘I want my costume to be flexible enough for me to do this,’” recalled costume designer James Acheson, for whom “Spider-Man” was his first Hollywood production. “He’s a yogi and probably the most flexible actor I’ve ever worked with. He wanted to do as much of his own stunt work as possible.
“We needed to sculpt the costume to Willem’s body, yet give it a certain amount of elasticity.”
Habberstad was involved in the design process as well.
“When we first went over there, they only had a puppet of what the Goblin was going to look like,” he said. “We picked out the major points where we would be hooking wires up to a harness under the costume. They designed the costume around those points, so we could pick him up from his back or hips and do several different things on wires.”
The masks presented yet another dilemma.
“I knew that you wouldn’t always be able to see the Goblin’s eyes or mouth, so he’d have to express himself vocally and through body language,” Dafoe said. “That was a challenge, because you don’t want to make it a dumb show, overstate things or indicate them. You only want to invest as much motion as is needed to perform the required actions.”
Acheson wasn’t sold on the preliminary illustrations provided him of Green Goblin. He felt as if they made the villain look “cheesy.” He entrusted Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. with the responsibility of creating a face for the character.
“As drawn he was very cartoony,” said Tom Woodruff Jr., co-founder of the Chatsworth-based company, which specializes in special makeup, prosthetics and creature effects. “It was a good enough concept, but it would be difficult for a contemporary audience to accept that character as the villain. The first thing we did was get the go-ahead from Sam Raimi to explore a design concept in which we developed a prosthetic ... an appliance makeup ... for the character.
“We developed a prosthetic appliance made of a translucent silicone material. Because of the structure of the Goblin’s forehead, we also built a very low-profile, low-relief radio-control mechanism to articulate the brow.”
Everyone agreed it looked great, but, perhaps, was a bit too emotive.
“Sam thought we should go with something more static ... sort of a tribal, ceremonial mask as an inspiration,” Woodruff said. “From that came the idea that Osborn was a collector of masks, which you see on the walls of his office.”
Acheson insisted that they come up with a mask that “retained the Green Goblin’s face ... , that terrifying mouth and eyes. In all the drawings, his mouth is locked into that maniacal scream.”
And so it remains.
The rest of the costume was intended to resemble a “high-tech flying suit” and reference the streamlined look of Green Goblin’s glider. Dafoe describes the glider experience as being a “cross between surfing and riding a bull. If you don’t stay with it, it’s very unforgiving.”
For his next “outsider” role, in Paul Shrader’s “Auto Focus,” Dafoe leaves fantasy behind and returns to the realm of the merely perverse. In it, he portrays John Carpenter, a pioneer in the art of video voyeurism and slain “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane’s partner in sleaze.
“The characters I play are outsiders; they don’t function as villains,” he said. “One role informs the next. I think all your lessons are learned intuitively, and you don’t have to be able to articulate them.
“You empathize so deeply, you want to be dissolved into that character.”